One of the winningest poker players on the tournament circuit, Barry Greenstein knows a little something about attaining balance in life. He embodies generosity in every sense of the word. Between finishing his upcoming new book and saving the world’s children one tournament at a time, Barry sat down with the Lizard for some small talk…
PokerLizard: You are known as the “Robin Hood” of poker, due to your donating of the majority of your tournament winnings to charity (over $2 million last year). Your primary charity is Children Incorporated , that assists impoverished children all over the world. How did you first get involved with them? How do you decide which charities you select?
Barry: It really started a result of my bad parenting. I had spoiled my kids and I was trying to show them that other kids aren’t as fortunate as they are. I wanted to sponsor a boy and a girl the same ages as my two youngest children. Most of the sponsoring charities had a religious agenda and I didn’t want that. I wanted to feed and clothe children, not save their souls. Although I know these religious people mean well, I don’t like it when food or medicine are given to poor children in return for adopting the giver’s religion.
Anyway, I found the sponsoring charity Children Incorporated. They have many religious people working for them, but that isn’t their agenda. Too many people only give of themselves if it is part of their religious ethic. We don’t have enough non-religious people who realize that you can have good morals and ethics even if you’re not religious.
The people who helped get the clothes and money to the kids I sponsor are called coordinators. I won a tournament and gave $1000 to each coordinator who worked for Children, Inc. These people were not too well off either since they lived in these impoverished areas and additionally they were underappreciated in my view. I kept winning tournaments and I used the money for disaster relief and rebuilding of orphanages around the world. Children, Incorporated has more than 15,000 children in 21 countries on their rolls.
I made so much money in tournaments that I decided to branch out. I now give half to Children, Incorporated and half to other charities. I decided to help where I came from and where I live. I gave money to my high school in Chicago and the math department at University of Illinois where I did my graduate work. I gave to schools and a shelter near where I live. My next plan is to give money to shelters and orphanages near wherever I win a tournament. I have a trick up my sleeve: I think this is the best way to get the hosting casino to match my contribution.
I usually give to charities where I have personal contacts, so I can track how every dollar is spent. I have also given money to some charities suggested by other poker players. I feel like I carry the flag for all poker players, who as a group are very generous people, but who aren’t fortunate enough to be in the financial position that I’m in.
PokerLizard: How did you first get interested in poker? How long have you been playing serious poker? Who was most influential in your development as a poker player?
Barry: I’ve been making money at poker since I was twelve years old. I have always been the biggest winner in every organized game in which I have played for more than a year. I learn from everyone, sometimes copying things they do right and often guarding against things they do wrong. I break poker down into components. If I see someone bet a hand better than I would have, I take note. I am very good at analyzing hands after they are over. Most of my learning came from correcting my mistakes after thinking about different approaches I could have taken.
PokerLizard: In your opinion, what 3 characteristics does it take to become a “World Class” Player? Do these characteristics differ if one wants to be a world class tournament player vs. world class cash game player?
Barry: I give 25 characteristics, in order, in my book. I also discuss the difference between tournament skills and cash game skills.
PokerLizard: I’ve always heard that great poker players will not leave a game if there are favorable conditions. What is the longest session of poker you have ever played and how do you keep focused for such a long period?
Barry: I have probably played for three days straight. I used to take cat naps at the table if I could. I also was in top physical shape, which helped. I am not as strong or as driven as I was when I was younger, so I rarely play more than 20 hours at a clip now.
PokerLizard: Most of the High-Limit games you play in are “mixed” games. Do you think varying the game helps you maintain focus and keep the game interesting?
Barry: It just gives me a bigger edge. I am pretty equal at all the games, but most players have weak games and strong games.
PokerLizard: You have a new poker book coming out in the near future – what type of book is it? Who do you believe will benefit most from this book? Do you fear you may give away too much information in the book?
Barry: It is the first advanced poker book ever written. I think it will help everyone, although the advanced poker ideas may go over the heads of beginners. I don’t have a beginner’s section. I assume the reader knows how to play poker at a reasonable level. If he doesn’t, he can skip the poker and read the psychology and philosophy. The books holds its own as a novel about high stakes poker.
I probably give away too much. Many advanced players who read it say, “You’re not really going to publish these examples, are you.” I have given it to the highest stakes players in the world and they have all admitted that they have learned from my book. Just recently, Tuan Le read it and promptly won the Foxwoods WPT tournament. Then he gave it to his friend Nam Le who unluckily got knocked out in sixth place at the Bellagio WPT with King-Queen all-in against King-Jack before the flop.
PokerLizard: Originally, the book you wrote was going to be part of Doyle Brunson’s Super System II. Which section of the book did Doyle ask you to write? How flattering was it to have the biggest name in Poker ask you to contribute?
Barry: I turned Doyle down for two years and I started to feel guilty. Then I said “I’ll take some notes about how I make money at poker and I’ll see where it leads me.” The result is my book. He gave me the option of keeping it for myself instead of paring it down to be a chapter in his book.
PokerLizard: When people talk about the biggest games, to what limits are they generally referring?
Barry: We normally play $4,000-$8,000 limit and some no-limit games with a $100,000 cap. That is, $100,000 is the most anyone can lose on any one hand.
PokerLizard: What kind of tournament style do you favor? Do you tend to play aggressively early knowing that you can just move over to the lucrative cash games if the tournament doesn’t go your way?
Barry: I like starting off at bigger limits than most tournament players would prefer. Yes, I do play more aggressively than I might if I didn’t have a side game to play in. I don’t want to get worn out, because I will generally be playing for big money later that night.
PokerLizard: What advice would you give someone hoping to become a great player (not necessarily a pro player)?
Barry: Normally, I advise people not to play poker. I think my book will help people decide if they are capable of becoming winning players.
PokerLizard: Are you blown away by the sudden popularity of Poker? Do you get recognized much by poker fans due to your success on the WPT broadcasts?
Barry: It’s amazing. I can’t go anywhere without being recognized, especially by males from 17 to 25. I also get many hugs from women who thank me for helping children.
PokerLizard: Do you ever play online? If so, how does your strategy vary from live games?
Barry: I only played online while I was writing the short internet chapter in my book. I can’t use all of my skills when I can’t see faces and body language, but I still won more than $20,000 during the week I played.
PokerLizard: What do you like to do for fun when you’re away from the tables?
Barry: Since I have done so much traveling to tournaments lately, I am always happy to be home. When I’m home, I spend time answering mail and at this time I am going through the editing and publishing stage of my book. I get a lot of poker related phone calls and e-mail: interviews, new television ideas, and new software ideas. For fun, I play bridge on the computer. I would like to get back on the golf course, but I haven’t had the time.
PokerLizard: Which players do you most like to match wits with? Are there any unknown up-and-comers that we should be on the lookout for?
Barry: The young tournament players don’t look too swift to me. But they all have a chance to win a tournament. High stakes players salivate at the thought of these players playing in the big cash games.
PokerLizard: Have you ever thought seriously about giving up poker, why?
Barry: I quit a few times when I thought I had enough money to retire. I never needed much for myself. Funny how having a family changes that.
PokerLizard: What do you enjoy most and least about the professional poker lifestyle?
Barry: I always have had to be my own boss. I quit for a while to work at Symantec, but that was a condition even then. What I liked least is that I felt like I was letting my life slip away with out doing anything productive. Now that I give money to charity, I don’t feel like that anymore.
PokerLizard: If someone you knew was determined to become a pro, what advice would you give them any what pitfalls should they avoid?
Barry: This is a major part of my book. (hint taken)
PokerLizard: If a rank amateur wanted to win a bracelet at the WSOP which game would your recommend he/she learn, and why?
Barry: Razz is probably the easiest game to learn.
PokerLizard: Obligatory PokerLizard Question: If you were Matt Damon in “Rounders” how long would it have taken you to kick your girlfriend to the curb and get with Famke Janssen?
Barry: I have never kicked a girlfriend to the curb. I am still on good terms with every girlfriend I have ever had. Someone once said, “Most poker players go through girlfriends, you seem to acquire them.”
PokerLizard: Congratulations on your success and Thanks for your time. Next time were in Vegas will drop by the Bellagio to say Thanks, that is, before security kicks us out of the high roller area. Looking forward to that book!
If you liked this interview please consider making a small donation, all proceeds will go toward my children’s college fund, Thanks.